Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published in “Life in Durham”

Smarty pints: Fullsteam to celebrate its 500th trivia night

The air stirs as the game is about to begin, possibly from the giant ceiling fan or maybe from all the brainwaves filling the bar. The best and brightest of Durham have gathered and are preparing for cerebral combat. The screen flashes to life:  “Fullsteam Brewery presents the 499th edition of Thursday Night Trivia.”  

Very soon teams will be huddled in heated discussion over a vital fact: Which color M&M is said to act as an aphrodisiac?* 

Fullsteam Trivia Night is a quirky Durham tradition that has been puzzling residents for the past 10 years. Every Thursday night, locals, Dukies, and highrise-dwelling millennials gather to show their trivia chops and have a pint of the local brew (try their summer speciality, Above-Ground Pool). Approaching its 500th edition on July 29, Fullsteam’s weekly trivia night has garnered such a loyal following because let’s face it… 

Durham is a city of nerds. 

Add up (and this group likes to do math) Duke, Research Triangle Park, Google, not to mention Apple on the horizon, and the abundance of brainiacs makes Durham a place where it is cool to be smart. We take pride in knowing which Civil War officer is mistakenly credited with inventing baseball or being able to identify various types of beans.

Facts and a good IPA – a perfect night out. 

Fullsteam, a Durham institution since 2010, serves as the location for this meeting of gray matter. It fits with founder and CEO Sean Lilly Wilson’s vision of serving ”as a community center and a mirror of Durham.”

Teams such as the QuaranTinas and Hookers for Jesus sit at orange picnic tables to go head to head in the cavernous (and partially air conditioned) warehouse. Despite the towering brick walls, the houseplants and skylights keep the brewery welcoming and bright. 

Contestants gather at picnic tables inside the bar and submit their answers on paper or through their phones. Photo by Becca Schneid – The 9th Street Journal.

Odd team names are an essential part of the experience. Some, like Arturo’s Batgoats (named after host Arturo Sanchez), are regulars and even have T-shirts, while others dig deep for their inner comic week after week. Other recent names include Nerd Immunity, Trivia Newton John, Botany is Bitchin, and Tequila Mockingbird. 

The collective brainpower of the crowd is impressive.  Many participants are Duke graduate students, such as the members of Fran’s Spicy Meatballs. The rest are young professionals, and a few long-time Durhamites. The game is so alluring that some Fullsteam employees stay after their shift to play. 

Puzzled

Host Zak Norris rattles off the rules and announces the first category: National Flags Made Out of Food. 

(Snarky categories are part of the fun, such as Canadians, Funky Body Parts, Famous Elves, Words that go with “Duck”, Things that Spin, and The Supermarket as seen by your Dog – Blurry Groceries.) 

As the questions begin to roll out, “It’s like watching a ripple go through the crowd,” said Sanchez. “When you ask the question, it gets quiet. You see heads come together at the table. And it’s almost like a communion.” 

Immediately there is a chorus of hurried whispers and nods of agreement. Sometimes after a momentary freeze, BOOM!, faces light up. At one table, players celebrate their guesses, prematurely sure of their correct answer. At another, hands fly gesturing to argue their side in a fierce debate. 

For the really hard questions an audible “huh?” can be heard in the sea of blank faces. 

Then, the big question of the moment:

What is the most recognized smell in the world? 

Teams whisper their guesses: Gasoline? Chocolate? Fish? Beer???

Players take another desperate sip to find the answer hidden somewhere in the foam. 

Once all 10 questions in a category are asked, teams submit their answers on paper or through their phones. (Occasionally teams will leave messages or doodles for the host as well). 

Quizmasters

The questions change each week, but this trivia night is much like the 498 that have come before. 

It began in 2011 when Norris approached Fullsteam about a weekly event. In 2019, Sanchez joined as an alternating host. During the pandemic, he started virtual trivia “because it gave me that sense of continuity, that sense of normalcy that people were craving so much.” 

Sanchez enjoys being the center of attention and fills his trivia nights with jokes and personal stories. He will never reuse a question, but there are some noticeable themes. Watch out for celebrities he thinks are cute, anything related to queer culture, U.S. politics and “The Golden Girls.” 

Norris on the other hand is a “straightforward, no frills” kind of host, Sanchez said. All answers are submitted on paper and while it takes him some time to tally the answers by hand, Norris likes this break. “I think sometimes a question might spark a memory for somebody and they’ll end up telling their table a story.” Norris enjoys the research to put a game together, but unlike his counterpart, “I actually don’t like getting up in front of people.” He focuses on keeping the game moving and creating a pleasant mind-expanding evening. 

What IS the most recognized smell?

When it’s time to announce the answers, the bar is suddenly quiet. Sonic + the Hedgehogs team member Olivier Boivin (a Duke genetics Ph.D. student) sums up the drama. “It’s been a real roller coaster of emotion.” 

Finally Norris gets to the tricky one: “According to a study by Yale University, what is the most recognized smell in the world?” 

“Coffee.”

Cheers erupt and picnic tables rock as a few competitors leap out of their seats for high fives to celebrate a surprise correct answer.

When the game is done, eyes scan the Excel spreadsheet to see how they have fared. 

The winner of the night is Zack’s Zealots. Team member Matt Lawing is a trivia pro who has been playing at various spots in Durham for the past 10 years. He finished the night with a perfect game. 

* Legend says this M&M is an aphrodisiac: Green

In photo above, host Arturo Sanchez. He likes to ask questions about politics, pop culture and “The Golden Girls.” Photo by Becca Schneid, The 9th Street Journal

Field of memories: Even without a home team, the DAP is Durham’s baseball home

On a humid Tuesday evening in July, more than 150 baseball fans sit scattered across the stands of the Historic Durham Athletic Park. Grandparents, families and toddlers have flooded through the old gates to watch the Rockhounds and Thunder go head to head. 

Sweltering in the heat, boys 13 to 15 years old take turns at the plate. Their coaches are  volunteers in the Long Ball Program, part of a Major League Baseball youth outreach initiative. A crack of a bat echoes out into the downtown neighborhood as the Rockhounds make a daring run to first base.

Durham Athletic Park — the DAP — was the home of the Durham Bulls from 1926 to 1994. A block away from Durham Central Park, the ballpark famously served as the backdrop for the 1988 movie Bull Durham, a romantic ode to baseball that helped put this little Southern city on the map. 

The team’s popularity exploded in response to Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon’s saucy depiction of minor league baseball. In 1995, the Bulls moved a few blocks south to their newly constructed Durham Bulls Athletic Park (DBAP), where the team still plays today. 

The DAP remained standing but was poorly maintained until its renovation in 2009. Then the old park found new life as the home field for the N.C. Central University Eagles — but that era came to a close this year when NCCU, citing COVID-related budget cuts, eliminated its baseball program.

With the primary tenant gone and the surrounding downtown Durham rapidly developing, many wonder what lies ahead for this old ballpark. 

The DAP remains full of life this summer, hosting several youth league games each week. The Bulls — who manage their old park under contract for its owner, the city of Durham — are optimistic about its future. The ballpark’s next era remains unclear, but city leaders say plans are forming and the DAP is here to stay. 

Cars parked outside El Toro Park, circa 1927. Durham Historic Photographic archives, North Carolina Collection, Durham County Library

The story of Durham Athletic Park is a story of resilience, constant evolution and, above all, a love of baseball.

Worth a run in the bottom of the ninth

For nearly a century, the DAP has stood unmoving as the city of Durham grew and evolved around it. The occupants are always changing, but its concrete walls remain impervious to the ebb and flow of time. 

No matter what, the DAP endures.

It was known as El Toro Park when the Durham Bulls played their first game there in 1926. The stadium was renamed Durham Athletic Park when the city purchased the property in 1933. After a few years of vacancy during the Depression, in 1939, the DAP’s wooden grandstand burned to the ground, with the groundskeeper barely making it out alive. It was quickly rebuilt, this time with steel and concrete. 

The Durham Bulls, circa 1930. Durham Historic Photographic archives, North Carolina Collection, Durham County Library

In 1951 the DAP was the backdrop for Percy Miller Jr.’s debut as the first black baseball player in the Carolina League. The Bulls played off and on there until 1972, when the team folded. 

Then in 1980, owner Miles Wolff revived the Durham Bulls, filling the ballpark with 4,418 fans the first night. In the steaming North Carolina summers of the 1980s, the DAP was the place to be. Retired sportswriter Kip Coons, who covered the Bulls for the Durham Morning Herald (and who appears in Bull Durham), remembers the DAP in its prime. 

“Most nights, it was 4000 [fans], 5000, standing room jammed in. And it was loud,” retired sportswriter Kip Coons says. Ninth Street Journal photo by Rebecca Schneid
“Here on a bad night, it was 3000 [fans]. Most nights, it was 4000, 5000, standing room jammed in. And it was loud,” Coons said. 

He recalls a deafening roar in the small stadium, with fans shouting at the players on the field when they weren’t playing up to snuff. With a narrow foul territory and a field-level press box, the DAP was an intimate ballpark. 

Regularly breaking minor league attendance records, the fans made Bulls games special. Coons said his friend Brian Snitker, now manager of the Atlanta Braves, used to say that, “the crowd in Durham was worth a run in the bottom of the ninth.” 

This culture was partially why Bull Durham director Ron Shelton made Durham the setting for his now-classic film. Shelton, who had played in the minor leagues himself, wanted to capture ordinary baseball in small-town America.

And as Coons watched the movie’s premiere, he knew Shelton had succeeded. The Bulls players were laughing and joking in the theater until the scene where a player was released from the team. 

“It was like a church. It was so quiet.” said Coons. “Because all the players realized, ‘Damn, that could be me tomorrow. I could be out of baseball.’ And when they reacted like that, I realized at that moment, Ron Shelton has nailed it.”

Bull Durham’s authenticity made the film a national hit, grossing $50.8 million and earning recognition as one of the best sports movies of all time. It helped revive minor-league baseball as a nationwide pastime and “shot Durham into national consciousness,” said Susan Amey, president & CEO of Durham’s tourism marketing agency, Discover Durham

Ninth Street Journal photo by Grace Abels

Suddenly, everyone wanted to see the Durham Bulls play, and the team began to outgrow the aging DAP. In 1990, a crowd of 6000-plus had the venue bursting at the seams. 

When Jim Goodmon bought the Bulls that same year, plans for a larger ballpark were announced. The team played its first game in the new Durham Bulls Athletic Park in 1995, and three years later, the Bulls became a Triple-A minor league team — the highest before the majors.

The city began to blossom, too. 

“I think Durham’s financial and cultural renaissance directly results from the Bulls’ success as a minor league franchise,” Coons said. 

The Durham Bulls Athletic Park was one of the first visitor features downtown, along with Brightleaf Square, the American Tobacco Campus, and the Durham Performing Arts Center, Amey said. The restaurants, hotels, and shops were quick to follow. 

As the team moved on to bigger and better things, the DAP was mostly forgotten. After the Bulls’ departure, the old park was used occasionally for festivals and softball, but the facility was rundown and the field poorly maintained.

In 2009, as a part of a broader move from the city to improve its facilities, the city gave the DAP a $5 million facelift. Renovations were done to improve the structure, surplus seating was removed, and the field was restored to a professional level playing surface.

Minor League Baseball operated the refurbished stadium for a few years as a training area for umpires and groundskeepers. Management, paid for by the city, was passed in 2012 to the Durham Bulls, who remain dedicated to the space.

“We kind of consider ourselves caretakers of the museum, so to speak,” said Scott Strickland, who manages the DAP for the Bulls. “And that’s a lot of responsibility, but it’s a whole lot of fun, too.” 

Old park, new life

NCCU’s baseball program revived the Historic DAP, bringing life and a full schedule to the venue for more than a decade. The Eagles’ daily practices and games occupied most dates September through November and January through May. The team’s final regular season game on home turf was a 6-1 victory over Florida A&M on May 15. 

That would have been a pretty full calendar for a normal field, but due to the few baseball stadiums in the area, the demand for the space was high, so Durham School of the Arts and Voyager Academy also play several games there each year.

In summer, the DAP schedule is packed with youth games.

“I’d say we have activity in the ballpark six days a week,” said Joe Stumpo, the DAP’s head groundskeeper. The ballpark hosts traveling youth teams that play four games a day Thursday through Sunday. The rest of the dates are filled by the Long Ball program, a youth league that provides an alternative to expensive travel teams. 

Families find seats in the stands to watch youth teams play at Durham Athletic Park. Ninth Street Journal photo by Grace Abels

For youth leagues, the historic nature of the DAP continues to draw in a younger generation. 

“I think that’s why we get so many more people coming,” said Patricia James, founder of the Long Ball Program. “That is our drawing card. When they find out this is our home field.” 

The view from the stands isn’t bad, either. 

“I guess it’s neat for me to see my son play on a field that Hall of Famers have played on,” said Courtney Smith, mother of 14-year-old Bryce. Smith attended Bulls games here as a kid, so “it’s a lot of younger memories that come back” when she visits the park.

Strickland was sad to see NCCU ending its program, but he isn’t worried about filling the new hole in the DAP schedule.

To Strickland their departure just means the next evolution of the DAP. While the venue has always been able to host non-sporting events, from dance recitals to Mayor Bill Bell’s retirement, the building constraints and field protection made them quite expensive and hard to squeeze into the calendar. 

With NCCU off the schedule, “We’ll be able to be a little more selective on the type of events that we do,” he said. Strickland envisions it will look more like a normal baseball field schedule peppered with concerts, movies and other non-sporting events.

City leaders are ready for the DAP’s next evolution as well.

“We want to increase its usage. But we are in the early stages of thinking about that,” Mayor Steve Schewel said. He sees it as a “fantastic public asset” that ought to be used by more of the Durham community. Conversations between the city and Durham Bulls are in their infancy, but Schewel said new information should be available in a few months.

A piece of Durham’s soul

While the Durham Athletic Park has witnessed almost 100 years of a morphing Durham landscape, the last 30 years have been particularly astounding. 

Downtown Durham and the streets around the DAP are crowded with big apartment buildings, new nightlife, and large construction equipment dedicated to building more and more each year. 

Because of the limited land available, the 5.4 acres of land the DAP occupies is valuable real estate. For reference, in 2019, a plot of 0.6 acres across from the farmers market sold for $3.3 million. Several new developments around the ballpark will begin construction soon. 

The DAP is valued at $8.2 million and developers say it would surely fetch more if the city decided to sell it, but Schewel says that’s not an option. “In my 10 years on the council and as mayor, I have never heard a single conversation about selling the property. That is not going to happen,” Schewel said.

Surprisingly, some local developers agree. 

“I would frankly, as a developer, be disappointed to see that go from the neighborhood,” said Ben Perry of East West Partners, the developers in charge of the Liberty Warehouse apartments up the road on Foster Street.

They see it as precious green space, a recreational amenity, and a protected view. 

“Who doesn’t like to look at a baseball field at night. It’s just a beautiful view-shed with activity and life” said Paul Snow, a developer and commercial appraiser who worked on a nearby condo property.

“I think that it is such an important part of that neighborhood that nobody is wishing to see that gone,” Snow said. Perry said a place like the DAP has a different kind of value to the community. “It can’t always be measured in dollars and cents,” he said.

The truth of it is: People just love this old ballpark. 

For Kip Coons, the DAP was where he learned to be a sports writer.  For Joe Stumpo, it was where he had his first full-time job at 19. For Scott Strickland, it was where he watched baseball as a kid with his dad. For Courtney Smith it is where her son plays baseball with his friends.

For others, it is the background in their wedding photo, where they hit their first home run, or maybe just where they walk their dog. 

“I think it’s a connection for generations,” said Stumpo “I just think this place has a lot of history to a lot of people.”

After so many years, Durham Athletic Park has firmly established itself as a part of the city’s identity. 

“I think it carries a little piece of Durham’s soul in it,” said Amey. “It’s something that residents treasure.”

“If I sit here, you know, I expect to see Annie Savoy walk by,” retired sportswriter Kip Coons said. Ninth Street Journal photo by Rebecca Schneid

Places like the DAP are important to keep not just because of their history. “There are ways to preserve memories. Some of them are museums, and some are natural things like parks, and some are just living memorials like a baseball stadium,” Coons said.

When Coons stands by the old ticket booth, the memories come flooding back — from the DAP’s heyday in the 1980s, and from the movie version, too.

“If I sit here, you know, I expect to see Annie Savoy walk by.” 

At the top: The Bulls are long gone and the NCCU Eagles played their last game in May, but the DAP is busy with youth baseball this summer. Ninth Street Journal photo by Grace Abels

State park rangers fell trees to thwart cliff-jumpers at Eno Quarry

After a series of drownings and broken-bone injuries at an old rock quarry in the Eno River State Park — a beautiful swimming hole enjoyed by Durhamites since the 1970s — state park officials have taken action they hope will prevent future accidents.

This spring, they felled trees to create a barrier at a dangerous jumping spot — a cliff with a 25-foot drop into deep water. 

While they hope to make the four-acre Eno Quarry a safer place to visit, they acknowledge that some visitors are upset about the change.

“I know that it makes people unhappy,” said Kimberly Radewicz, the Eno River State Park superintendent. “But the quarry needs to turn into a purely recreational area, not a hub for daredevils.”

The four-acre Eno Quarry has been a popular swimming hole since the 1970s. Ninth Street Journal photo by Rebecca Schneid

Four swimmers have died since 1993 at the Eno Quarry, which Radewicz calls a “beautiful nuisance.”  In recent years, her office has received calls about broken backs, broken feet and broken ankles. Three years ago, a 15-year-old girl broke four ribs and suffered a collapsed lung after jumping from the cliff and hitting a tree trunk on her way down. 

The Eno Quarry is surrounded by steep banks in some areas and is uniformly around 65 feet deep. The view from its rocky ledges may give the illusion of a smooth landing, but just under the surface of the dark green water lies a treacherous mix of logs and debris. To enter the water, swimmers must either jump from a 12-to-25-foot rock shelf, climb down a rocky bank, or wade in through the only shallow area — where the bottom is riddled with debris and sharp rocks. 

On her routine patrols, Radewicz warns visitors of the quarry’s hidden dangers. 

Eno River State Park rangers warn quarry visitors of underwater dangers. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

“I tell them the quarry is beautiful, but there’s these other things you need to know for your own protection, for your own security and safety.”

Visitors frequently do not realize how deep the swimming hole actually is, and that there are no lifeguards, Radewicz said. After she shares her insights and statistics, they sometimes reconsider their plans to jump or swim without life vests or rafts.

The Eno Quarry was excavated in the 1960s to provide stone for the construction of nearby Interstate 85. In later years it filled in naturally with water, and visitors soon followed.

The quarry was originally on private property, and locals would trespass to swim, fish, or cliff jump. When people started to get hurt, the property owners at the time, the Coile family, took action.

“They put up barbed wire, they put up barriers, and people would tear them down,” said Radewicz. “It was a very popular place for people to go. I’ve heard stories that they hired a guy with a .22 rifle to try to keep people away.”

Eno Quarry swimmers on a July afternoon. Ninth Street Journal photo by Rebecca Schneid

For 29-year-old Durham native Todd Fox, the Eno Quarry and its infamous jump have been a reliable weekend destination for more than 13 years. In fact, Fox’s parents met while swimming there, when they were teens. 

After seeing the felled trees on a recent visit, he was devastated.

“They massacred [it],” Fox said. “All that history gone … years of experiences my son will not get the chance to have.”

Quarry visitors walk about a mile from the parking lot, using the Cabe Lands and Quarry trails. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

The Eno Quarry became part of the state park in 2003. The superintendent at the time, Dave Cook, foresaw trouble and tried to ban swimming there altogether. He put up a fence around the jump spot, but outraged swimmers dismantled it, and Cook and his staff eventually revoked their ban. Unable to effectively prohibit swimming, they decided they would simply discourage it. 

To reach the quarry, visitors park at the Cabe Lands Access parking lot off Howe Street and hike about a mile on the Cabe Lands and Quarry trails, navigating under trees and over streams to reach a clearing in the woods. The trail is marked with signs that warn against swimming in the deep water with its submerged hazards, and against jumping or diving from the quarry’s steep banks.

The signs are meant to prevent accidents, but they aren’t a guarantee.

The earliest reported drowning at the Eno Quarry was in 1993. In 2007, 18-year-old Ian Creath drowned while swimming far off shore. Seventeen-year-old Lamont Burt Jr. died in 2015 while swimming just below the jump spot. Nicklaus Brown, 18, drowned after jumping from the cliff and failing to resurface in 2019.

Under former superintendent Keith Nealson, the state park’s response to fatalities focused on increasing quarry patrols and constantly reminding the public of its dangers. Visitors often laughed off his rangers’ warnings, Nealson said.

Nealson and his staff discussed putting up another fence, but they didn’t want to repeat Cook’s mistake. For a while, whenever people called his office for information about the swimming hole, Nealson resorted to saying “we don’t have one.”

Kimberly Radewicz, Eno River State Park superintendent. Credit: NC Division of Parks & Recreation

“When you reach a point where you can’t manage people, you have to find creative solutions,” Nealson said in an interview.

The Eno Quarry makes up just one-tenth of a percent of the state park’s property,  but it is the source of 70% of all emergency calls and citations, he said. 

“The hardest part of managing the entire state park was that quarry,” Nealson said. “On a typical summer weekend, it would be unusual if we didn’t respond to at least five or six incidents there.”

Radewicz knew she needed to do more, especially now that soil erosion is making all entry points increasingly precarious. After she was promoted from park ranger to superintendent in 2019, she channeled her new authority into safeguarding the swimming hole.

When the state park closed in 2020 because of the pandemic, she leveraged the time to brainstorm solutions before reopening. The existing warning signs were not enough; fences can be climbed or destroyed; and a swimming ban is impractical to implement and enforce.

“We would have to have rangers down there 24 hours a day,” Radewicz said. “We don’t have those sorts of resources here.”

Rangers felled trees to block access to a 25-foot cliff. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

She settled on felled trees as the best and most natural option. In February, Radewicz got permission to drop the first round of trees over the jump spot. More trees were felled there in May after teenagers continued to jump, finding gaps in the original barrier. 

So far this year, the Eno River park office has noticed a decrease in emergency calls and injuries.

“It seems to be doing great so far,” Radewicz said. “I have high hopes.”

This is particularly good news given the area’s recent surge in visitors. According to Radewicz, Eno River State Park broke one million visitors for the first time ever last year, ranking it the fourth most popular park among the 41 in the state.

Regulars have noticed how much busier the park is this year. 

“It gets so crowded that it’s impossible to even park there,” said Zachary Keesee, 22, an avid quarry cliff jumper since high school.  “It’s not just locals anymore. People from all over the state come, and nearby college students come in big groups.”

Keesee likes meeting new people and doesn’t mind the increase in visitors, but he’s not sure they’ll continue to come with the jump spot destroyed.

“[The tree barrier] doesn’t only ruin the jump, it ruins the spot where everyone sits and hangs out,” he said.

Park officials briefly tried to ban swimming at the Eno Quarry. Ninth Street Journal photo by Rebecca Schneid

On recent visits to the Eno Quarry, Keesee has seen groups of teenagers immediately turn around and leave after seeing the jump spot barricaded.

While some visitors are unhappy about the new efforts to block cliff-jumping, other quarry visitors say they were never interested in the jump to begin with.

“We didn’t go there for an adrenaline rush,” said Konsta Anttila, who has been a few times with his wife, Elaina. “It was more about having a really relaxing time in a better alternative to a public pool.”

Jump or no jump, many visitors can still be found at the quarry on a summer afternoon — hiking, picnicking, fishing, reading in hammocks, or floating in the water on colorful rafts.

This is Radewicz’s vision for the Eno Quarry.

If safety issues arise again, she said she’ll go back to the drawing board to find new solutions. But for now, she will dedicate her time to improving the trail around the quarry, making it more sustainable. 

Keesee said there are still some smaller banks to jump from, and he wouldn’t be surprised if some committed visitors attempted to “dodge the trees” and make the big jump anyway, but he will err on the side of caution and instead try to find a new spot. He regularly does this by scouring Google Maps for small bodies of water nearby that seem swimmable and then checking them out in person. Sometimes he scores, sometimes not.

Still, he said, he has yet to find a spot that beats the Eno Quarry.

The quarry was excavated in the 1960s to provide stone for the construction of nearby Interstate 85. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

Even Fox, who was devastated to find his jump ruined, said he will continue to visit the quarry. 

“Even though they messed up my favorite part of the quarry, I will definitely be going back,” Fox said. “It’s still a really nice, peaceful walk through a beautiful part of the woods. Plus, there are waaaay too many memories.”

At top: Felled trees block access to 25-foot cliff at the Eno Quarry. Photo by Nicole Kagan, The 9th Street Journal

For more information about the Eno Quarry, gate times and access points, visit ncparks.gov/eno-river-state-park/trail/quarry-trail or call (919) 383-1686.

A man, a dog and a scooter

On a Thursday afternoon in Durham, traffic begins to slow on West Main Street as drivers gawk and smile at a cherry red Vespa. Pedestrians turn and pull out their phones to take a photo of the odd spectacle in front of them. They need a picture because otherwise their friends may not believe them. 

This is what they see: A man and a dog riding a scooter. 

The man has Ray-Bans and a thick brown beard. The dog, strapped to the man in a K9 backpack, is a brown and white collie wearing bright red goggles and a colorful tulle collar with sequined stars. 

As they ride, the man stays focused on the road ahead, but the dog, Miss Betty White, seems very aware of the paparazzi. Her tail wags under the nylon pack that secures her to the man’s back. She turns and tilts her head slightly, striking a pose. 

In a year of turmoil and doubt, the sight of a man and a collie on a Vespa evokes a momentary burst of joy. For David Cunningham and his 14-month-old dog, it is just another ride. 

Cunningham, a 43-year-old bartender, grew up in Ohio surrounded by dogs. They were just some of the many beings running around the house with him and his six siblings. Since moving to Durham almost 20 years ago, he had always wanted a dog of his own, but never had the time. That changed when COVID-19 hit. Suddenly, West End Billiards, the bar where he works, closed, and Cunningham found himself alone with little to do. He found Miss Betty White in a kennel in Lexington, N.C. 

A registered emotional support dog, Miss Betty, as he calls her, lifted him out of his quarantine blues. Since then, Cunningham’s buddies have told him he’s become a calmer, friendlier guy. 

“She’s the best thing to happen in 2020. She doesn’t have a mean bone in her body.” He then adds, “But if she did, she would gnaw on it.”

A peek in her closet

Off the scooter, they spend their evenings together, often dining at outdoor restaurants, or just watching “The Call of the Wild” on Cunningham’s couch. 

Photo by Becca Schneid | The 9th Street Journal

Along with her diet kibble, Miss Betty gets a steak dinner once a week and a daily dog-friendly ‘pupcake’ or donut. Every Tuesday night the pair hits a local restaurant for date night. While Cunningham orders off the menu, Miss Betty snacks on a dairy-free peanut butter cup from her favorite dog bakery, Oliver’s Collar. 

“She likes Reese’s just like her dad,” Cunningham says.

She earned her name because of her distinctive fur and as a tribute to the legendary actress: “With her big ole white mane like that, I was like, it’s gotta be Betty White. But there’s only one Betty White, so I insist people call her Miss Betty White.”

True to character, Miss Betty gets dressed up before an outing. A peek into her closet reveals dozens of outfits and accessories, complete with sequins, pom-poms, and ruffles. She has a rainbow tutu, denim overalls, and her “naughty Santa Claus outfit,” named because it is slightly too small and “her booty sticks out,” according to Cunningham.

Though luscious, Miss Betty’s shiny coat comes with a price. It has made vacuuming a crucial part of Cunningham’s daily schedule. That, along with her anti-shedding shampoo, ensures that his couch and cargo pants aren’t completely covered in dog hair.

Cunningham walks Miss Betty at least a half-mile four times a day, they go to the dog park once a week, and on the weekends they take hikes around the Eno, the Duke Forest, or the Al Buehler Trail. Miss Betty also has regular doggy-dates with her best friend Jack-Jack (a “little beagle lookin’ thing”) who lives in the neighborhood.

Miss Betty White’s active lifestyle keeps Cunningham in shape. He says he’s lost weight since he’s gotten her and developed a tan from being outdoors so often.

“Damn I’m beautiful”

She isn’t always as sweet as she looks. When she gets restless, Miss Betty can misbehave. On one such occasion a few months ago, she chewed up the molding around Cunningham’s door. 

He put her in a crate when he left home after that – until his guilt became too strong. Then Cunningham discovered the Furbo, a remotely operated camera that lets you see, talk, and toss treats to your dog when you’re not home. It’s even got an infrared camera so he can see Miss Betty in the dark.

In between customers at the bar, Cunningham will open the app to find Miss Betty White “laying up in the window sill like a cat.” He’ll use the microphone to get her attention, and then shoot a few treats onto the rug for her to find. 

Drivers often swerve to take photos of Miss Betty White. Photo by Becca Schneid | The 9th Street Journal

She has become something of a local celebrity. During their scooter rides, drivers often swerve to take photos to post. To Cunningham’s surprise, Miss Betty’s fan club stretches beyond Durham. He said she’s been recognized in Hillsborough, without the scooter.

For fans who want to keep in touch with Miss Betty, she has her own Instagram page. 

One post reads: “I love my human!!! Steak and eggs for breakfast…was not expecting that.”

“Bathed, nails trimmed, and brushed…damn I’m beautiful!!!!!” says another.

Cunningham grins.“I’m that guy. I used to make fun of those guys, but now I am one…I show my dog off like she’s my girlfriend or one of my kids.”

One post of Miss Betty as a puppy sitting in the grass is Cunningham’s favorite. He’s thinking he may get it as a tattoo.

Their scooter rides always end the same way. After parking the Vespa, Cunningham removes his helmet, exposing his bald head. Miss Betty gives him a joyous lick.

Every ride ends with a joyous lick. Photo by Becca Schneid | The 9th Street Journal

The Regulator Bookshop to reopen in early June

The Regulator Bookshop, the iconic Ninth Street store that has been shut down for the pandemic, plans to reopen its doors in early June. 

Co-owner Wander Lorentz de Haas told The 9th Street Journal that employees are busy restocking and preparing for customers to return in the next two weeks. 

“I think every staff member is just really excited to reopen and get back to showing people great books,” said Lorentz de Haas.

Like other bookstores, The Regulator closed in March 2020. The store was able to adapt to the pandemic by offering customers curbside pickup or delivery for books ordered online or by phone.

But while many other stores have reopened to the public, The Regulator kept its doors shut. That left many Durham bookworms puzzled. As crowds returned to Ninth Street, it seemed every other shop was open. Why not The Regulator?

“We didn’t feel in a particular rush to do it,” Lorentz de Haas said, “we just want to reopen right.”

Their top priority was to guarantee COVID safety. Elements that made the store unique suddenly posed challenges. “The veteran staff combined with the small intimate store during a pandemic became two huge problems for us” said Lorentz de Haas. 

All staff are now vaccinated and the building has improved air filtration. 

Shutting the store was also a wise business decision.

Their “survival strategy” was to return much of their inventory back to publishers for credit. Keeping a full inventory would be pricey, especially if only a limited number of shoppers would be permitted in the store. So they lowered their inventory, shut their doors, and focused on getting online orders to customers. 

“We basically converted the store into a warehouse.”  

As a result, the inside of the store had been transformed. Now, they are restocking and returning the store to its familiar layout. While they have not settled on a specific date, they expect to open in the first two weeks of June. 

In a time where independent bookstores are threatened by corporate giants such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, owners of The Regulator were pleasantly surprised at the quantity of orders they have received, especially last summer and over the holidays. 

“The support has been tremendous,” said Lorentz de Haas. “I did not expect that we would be doing as well as we did through the first of the year and even since then.” 

Ready to leave memories of COVID times in the past, they are glad to get back to what they are good at: selling books in-person. 

Bookstores are for browsing. 

“Any of the books we have in the store you can find online – no question about it, but many of them, some of the ones that become our bestsellers, you really have to do some digging to find them,” said Lorentz de Haas. 

But while The Regulator will remain the small, quirky place it has always been, it reopens to a transformed Ninth Street, with a not-very-quirky Chase Bank branch on the opposite side of the street – “Now we have the Rockefellers across from us.”

Despite the increased commercialization of the area, Lorentz de Haas said they see the store as the anchor of Ninth Street. “We just signed a big lease extension, so we’re here to stay.”

Durham’s incarcerated find spiritual support during COVID

Pastor Tim Coles appears on a Zoom screen with a golden cross hanging around his neck. Apple AirPods dangle from his ears as he navigates technology with agility, never imagining he’d be preaching from a virtual pulpit   with a church rooted in a 155-year-old history. 

Coles chairs the Agape Incarceration Ministry at White Rock Baptist Church. A sacred home of community, hope and spiritual wholeness, White Rock’s outreach ministries have provided emergency assistance for underserved children and families, fed people experiencing homelessness and empowered the medically disadvantaged through health and wellness workshops. 

But 66% of these programs were suspended due to the pandemic, according to church clerk Sue Jaromn. However, Coles’ ministry continues to reach some of the most disenfranchised members of the Durham community: the incarcerated. 

Of the eight total outreach projects at White Rock, the directors of seven ministries made the painful decision to put them on hold due to the nature of the in-person work. The school ministry couldn’t walk over to Pearson Elementary because of virtual learning. White Rock’s financial assistance program couldn’t provide grants because fiscal giving had decreased. The health ministry remained partially active, assisting with two COVID testing sites. And the missionary circle wrote cards to Meals on Wheels recipients

Despite the challenges of reaching people in jail during a pandemic, the Agape Incarceration Ministry has been the churchs’ most consistent, impactful outreach program during the coronavirus pandemic. 

In the past, the ministry conducted in-person meetings at the Durham County Detention Facility. Now it relies on limited virtual sessions and communicating via handwritten letters from incarcerated people looking for spiritual guidance and emotional support. 

White Rock Baptist Church boasts a 155-year history in Durham. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Virtual constraints

The Durham County Sheriff’s website states that the detention facility “offers internet, in-person and video visitation at no cost to detainees or visitors.”

However, in March 2020, people incarcerated in Durham County were paying GTL VisitMe, a private service contracted by the facility, $2.50 for every 10 minutes outside their two free, 10-minute weekly Zoom visits. When balancing funds for court and bail bond services, this adds up to a steep increase in fees. 

It also makes external communication less accessible, which limits receiving steady emotional support from loved ones. Someone could speak to their partner on a Monday and their parent on Wednesday for a total of 20 minutes of social interaction the entire week. 

Agape Incarceration Ministry’s two-minute to one-hour prayer or chat session in person became a pipe dream. 

“The morale here [at the jail] is low,” said Coles. 

If he’s lucky, Coles hops on Zoom with someone at the county jail for about 10 minutes. Before COVID, he could counsel at least 15 people a week. 

But for the entire month of January 2021, Coles virtually met with that same number of incarcerated people. Most of his interactions come through the mail; he says he receives around 25 handwritten letters per week.

Pastor Tim Coles stands outside of White Rock Baptist Church on Fayetteville St. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

A much-needed outlet

Up until March 2020, volunteers from White Rock and other churches gathered outside of Durham County Detention Facility early Saturday mornings. 

Many of you are natural encouragers, and these brothers and sisters are in low places in their lives and need you,” says the White Rock website

Typically, the volunteers would obtain pre-approval by the county to enter the jail. They’d go through security and wait in a room where incarcerated people could choose to walk over to them for a visit. Depending on the number of volunteers, each person would receive anywhere from two minutes to one hour of prayer, counsel or simple conversation. 

“They need that outlet,” Coles said. 

Whether it’s an approaching court case or family turmoil while away from home, incarcerated people face problems that dramatically shape their existence. Coles says that “they are hungry for peace, community and fulfillment.”

Coles often speaks of an 18-year-old man he regularly encountered on Saturday mornings at the jail. 

“No one ever tapped into his potential,” he explained. 

Coles says he was doing “impossible word searches” for college-level courses and knocking them out. So Coles brought him more difficult puzzles every other Saturday to keep his mind sharp.

The man wasn’t able to be reached for comment due to the pandemic and the transient nature of incarceration. But Coles expressed the value of the in-person interaction that the young man had with the church volunteers.

“No one ever asked him to use his brain,” Coles said. 

Coles says the young man was denied the opportunity to flourish, and he did his best to encourage him to keep up the mental exercises, which helped him emotionally, too. 

“It kept him going.”  

Because of the pandemic, this type of personal interaction doesn’t happen anymore. Yet according to a Durham County Deputy Sheriff, incarcerated people in the county jail get one scheduled day of the week for visits, with “15 to 20 minutes at the most.” Coles and other volunteers who are fully vaccinated can drive to Durham’s detention facility and conduct a video visitation over a county-monitored computer.  

Despite the challenges, White Rock Baptist Church continues to serve the incarcerated the best way they know how: by simply being available.

9th Street Journal reporter Adejuwon Ojebuoboh can be reached at adejuwon.ojebuoboh@duke.edu

Top: Pastor Tim Coles leads the Agape Incarceration Ministry at White Rock Baptist Church. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Community vision gives Belmont Park a makeover

For as long as the residents of Watts-Hillandale can remember, Belmont Park has been neglected. 

“I’ve driven by this park many times, and rarely—if ever—have I seen anyone in here,” said Chris Moyer, a member of the Watts-Hillandale Neighborhood Association

For years, Durham Parks and Recreation didn’t list Belmont Park in its inventory of parks and facilities. James Umbanhowar, who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years, says it took him two years to realize that the park existed; even when he did, he seldom used it. 

Sometimes Umbanhowar would joke about building a pump track—a series of dirt mounds for bicycles— in Belmont Park. Participatory budgeting made Umbanhowar’s pipe dream a reality. 

Neighbors Guy Meilleur and Chris and Kaia Moyer discuss park plans on April 6, 2021. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Durham adopted participatory budgeting in 2019. The democratic process, where community members submit public proposals and vote on them, helps put the control of public funds into the hands of the people

Tom Dawson, a Durham Parks and Recreation landscape architect, says participatory budgeting is dependent on the needs of Durhamites. 

“Instead of us forming a plan, going to City Council and using our professional overlay, the people come directly to us and come up with an idea of like ‘this is what we’d like to see in our parks.’”

Participatory budgeting at work

According to the city’s participatory budgeting website, community members from all three City Council wards can submit ideas for public arts, recreation, health and wellness and other city services. 

Since its launch, over 14,000 residents and students have participated. Approximately 500 ideas were submitted in its first cycle. In early 2019, Umbanhowar did just that and submitted a proposal to allocate funding for a dirt bike pump track in Belmont Park. Umbanhowar’s proposal was one of 11 chosen by Durham residents. The community voted on how to spend $2.4 million total, or $800,000 per ward.

After Belmont Park received funding in late 2019, Dawson at DPR contacted Umbanhowar, and they collected neighbors’ opinions on the park’s reconstruction. Umbanhowar’s job was outreach, so he emailed friends and bike listservs, contacted neighbors and spoke to the Watts Hospital-Hillandale Neighborhood Association

Dawson was in charge of planning. As a DPR employee, he began designing the park’s pump track and ran ideas by both Umbanhowar and the community.

At least 25 Watts-Hillandale residents showed up at Belmont Park on April 6, 2021 to vote for the new plan. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

In February 2020, DPR had its first public meeting about the proposal in Belmont Park. Over 40 residents showed up and voiced concerns and excitement while DPR staff grilled hot dogs and kids drew designs on the asphalt with chalk.

“I think the beauty of [participatory budgeting] is we have residents who really care about improving their community, and just to know that there was a lot of energy and support for this project [Belmont Park],” said Andrew Holland, Durham’s participatory budget manager.  

“I think the park’s always been underutilized, but I didn’t really advocate for a change until it came up on the ballot,” said Carrie Blattel, a resident of Watts-Hillandale, who voted for the pump track. 

Holland emphasized Durham’s efforts to meet people “where they’re at”—whether that be online, knocking on doors or even handing out flyers at barbershops

A vision realized

On April 6, 2021, DPR held its final public and in-person meeting at Belmont Park. The park’s contractor had been chosen, and the pump track’s designs were finalized. This meeting was the last stop before the construction team began moving dirt for the pump track, adding plants and building a new fence. 

“I’m impressed with how many people in the community turned out,” said Sean Wojdula, a member of Belmont Park’s construction team, about the gathering of more than 40 people

Durhamites from the Watts-Hillandale neighborhood voted on a play structure to complement the pump track. Some voted in person; others online. The options for the play structure were a dragon, salamander or snake. 

Kids voted, too.

“I’ll tell adults, ‘I’m interested in what you have to say, but I’m more interested in what the kids have to say,’” said Dawson.

Leon and Vincent, ages eight and five, were excited to vote and be able to bike in a park so close to home. After seeing the different options for a play structure, they both voted for the dragon, though they also pitched wrapping a snake around the dragon instead.

By the end of the summer, Dawson and Umbanhowar hope the park will be finished.

A mockup shows plans for Belmont Park’s makeover at the corner of Albany and Sovereign Streets. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

“[We] want residents to see projects being developed in their communities,” Durham’s participatory budget manager Holland said, adding that he hopes the community will continue to work in tandem with county staff. 

Mountain bike rider and Watts-Hillandale local Steve Mazzarelli agrees with Holland, and says participatory budgeting “gives the neighborhood more of a voice into how their tax money is used.” 

Durham is currently in its second round of participatory budgeting. This time, $1 million in funding will be delegated to COVID-19 restoration efforts. 

“It’s exciting. I wish they were breaking ground tomorrow and cranking this puppy out,” said Moyer from the Watts-Hillandale Neighborhood Association.

While Belmont Park’s makeover isn’t finished yet, Durham’s first round of participatory budgeting in the Watts-Hillandale neighborhood proved a success.

9th Street Journal reporter Eleanor Ross can be reached at eleanor.ross@duke.edu

9th Street Journal photographer Sho Hatakeyama contributed to this report.

Top: Vincent (left) and Leon Koch (right) inspect the park plan layouts in Belmont Park. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Death of birds blamed on bird feeders and salmonellosis

Bird-watchers in North Carolina have gotten alarmed in the last few weeks as dead or dying birds began appearing in their backyards. 

Biologists and people in the birdseed business say the deaths are not unusual, but that people are just more aware of them because of an increase in backyard bird feeders. They say homeowners can take a few simple steps to reduce the spread of the disease that has been killing the birds – and now has begun to sicken people. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week that 19 people in eight states had become ill with salmonella linked to songbirds. Eight have been hospitalized. No people have been sickened in North Carolina, but bird lovers have been urged to be cautious. 

This kind of outbreak happens from time to time. 

“Well first, let me tell you that salmonellosis is a common disease,” said Jeanne Mauney, the owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Durham. “This is not a sudden outbreak. It’s not a COVID event. This is normal Pine Siskin disease.”

Falyn Owens, a wildlife biologist from the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, says the salmonellosis that infects birds is commonly known as salmonella and “it’s the reason why we always clean chicken before we cook it and eat it.” 

Salmonellosis is passed by Pine Siskins, small songbirds. CDC photo

Salmonella is a common pathogen passed between Pine Siskins, a small songbird that migrates to the South from Canada every three to four years. This year, North Carolina has seen an influx in these kinds of finches because Canada did not have a sufficient amount of seed to feed their flocks, causing what Mauney calls “an irruptive year.”

Owens suspects at least some of the increase of seeing dead or dying birds is due to people buying bird feeders during quarantine. People were searching for new ways to entertain themselves and are now concerned when they see sick, fluffy birds in their yards. 

This also means that new bird feeder owners are unaware of the risks that run when interacting with wild animals, including the risk of pathogen transmission from bird to human.

One of the first steps to preventing the increase of dying birds is taking bird feeders down, although that can be an unpopular move within the bird-watching community. Feeders act as the perfect origin for a large outbreak. 

“It’s basically a feeding trough where multiple animals are eating off of, back to back,” said Owens, “You can imagine if you had a whole cafeteria worth of people without washing it in between, there’s a risk of contamination.”

Pine Siskins are also social birds. They travel in big flocks to bird feeders where there are more opportunities to spread pathogens to each other. 

After the initial break from bird feeders, Wild Birds Unlimited suggests more frequent cleaning with a bleach solution (1 part bleach, 9 parts water). While cleaning, it is necessary that people are extremely careful. Do not touch the feeders with your bare hands, and rinse your hands vigorously after cleaning. Transmission occurs when people touch their mouth after contact with the disease, whether directly with a bird, the seed, or a feeder. 

Mauney said to clean feeders often. “While normally we tell you to clean it monthly, we are saying to do it weekly.” 

Another option: plants instead of bird feeders. 

Native plants like black-eyed susans and purple coneflowers can be found at most nurseries and are a natural food source for songbirds. While the upfront cost is greater than purchasing a bird feeder, native plants require less upkeep and there are no subsequent purchases of bird seed to continue attracting birds. These plants allow for bird-watchers to continue observing from their homes, but limit the spread of salmonellosis.

“I think the best, most ecological decision,” Owens said, “is to switch away from bird feeders at all and move to a more natural way of attracting birds into your yard to watch them and to enjoy them and give them food and shelter is by providing food to them through native plants.”

That purple haze from a few streetlights? Just bad bulbs

When some streetlights around North Carolina began mysteriously turning purple this month, residents turned to Reddit for answers. They wondered whether the colored lights were a tribute to Prince, a nod to women’s history month, or the sign of an alien invasion. 

As it turned out, the purple tint was nothing more than some bad light bulbs. 

The streetlights, which are maintained by the power company Duke Energy, changed color due to a manufacturing error with the LED bulbs. It caused their white coating to fade with time, revealing a base purple color underneath.  

Other utilities across the nation using the same stock of lights are experiencing similar issues,” said Duke Energy spokesperson Jeff Brooks. “We are working with the vendor to better understand the issue, and they are taking steps to ensure it does not happen again.

Consider yourself lucky if you’ve seen one. Of more than 360,000 LED streetlights in the Carolinas maintained by Duke Energy, only 1.4% of them contain faulty bulbs. 

Still, residents are noticing.

When Shawn Rocco, a multimedia producer at Duke Health, found a cluster of the purple lights near Sherwood Githens Middle School, his first thought was that purple may have been one of the school’s colors.

Rocco was inspired to document the lights in a video set to Jimmy Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”. It wasn’t until he posted the video on Reddit and users commented that he came to understand the real reason behind the mysterious tint. It wasn’t what he expected.

“I’m not an electrical engineer … but I would think they would have tested these before they shipped them,” he said.

According to Duke Energy, the defect is limited to one batch of lights that was manufactured in 2018. The bulbs are only now proving to be defective as the white laminate begins to wear off.

Though Rocco speculated that some drivers could be distracted by the purple hue, Duke Energy maintains that with the lights still working, there is no safety concern. Regardless, field crews aim to replace all of the defective bulbs. The problem is, the company doesn’t necessarily know the location of each affected streetlight.

We’re working to replace them as soon as we identify their location. So we do appreciate the public reporting these lights when they see them, even as we are looking for them ourselves,” Brooks said.

Residents can inform Duke Energy of the purple haze – or any defective streetlight – by filling out an online streetlight repair report or by calling the customer service center at 1-800-777-9898.

Some may be hesitant to take action.

Several Redditors seem to prefer the purple hue. As one poetically put it: “the color … blends in better with the hues of the night sky.”

Photo above: The streetlight on Broad Street near West Knox Street has turned purple. Duke Energy says a small percentage of streetlights have bad bulbs that make them take on the purple haze. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal.

Roller skating experiences a pandemic revival

On May 26, 2020, working mom Cara August laced up a pair of roller skates for the first time in over 30 years. She swung open her front door and shakily skated out into her suburban Durham neighborhood, too excited to wait for her protective knee and elbow pads to be delivered. She was finally taking some time for herself.

“It made me feel empowered to make some sort of choice — to do something fun that was still safe and didn’t put anybody else in jeopardy,” said August, who works a day job in communications.

August joined legions of roller skating enthusiasts across the country who, over the past year, have strapped on a set of wheels and taken to the streets — whether in a city park or in a cul de sac. 

Cara August and her daughters gear up for a roller skating adventure. Photo courtesy of Cara August

The pandemic hobby has soared in popularity. Instagram and TikTok gained a whole new set of influencers: roller skaters taking over the internet, even appearing in Vogue magazine

In Durham, the activity became a way for locals to get outside and move during quarantine. That’s visible during a quick drive past open spaces downtown like vacant parking lots or Durham Central Park, where skaters freestyle moves across the pavement.

“We’ve seen a big increase in outdoor activity, and roller skating is part of that,” said Durham Parks and Recreation (DPR) Assistant Director Thomas Dawson. 

With piqued interest among Durhamites, Dawson says DPR hopes to launch roller skating classes in 2021 or 2022.   

In November 2020, DPR announced its plan to buy Wheels Fun Park, a historic Durham roller rink. The city aims to revamp the venue into a community and aquatics center in the next few years, and Dawson expects the roller rink won’t be going anywhere. 

“Most likely there will be a strong voice for preserving the roller skate rink,” he said. 

While he doesn’t want to make any promises until hearing directly from Durham’s community, he noted that “the purchase of this historic site has brought a lot of groups out of the woodwork who love the Wheels roller facility.” 

Eddie Watson, founder of the Raleigh-Durham Skaters Association, is excited to see this Durham staple stick around. Watson, who has skated for 30 years, is thrilled that roller skating is “in the spotlight,” mentioning how he has seen the sport pop up on Good Morning America, in Usher videos and all over social media. 

Eddie Watson (middle) and friends after a night of roller skating with the Raleigh-Durham Skaters Association. Photo courtesy of Eddie Watson.

Popular again

Increased visibility like this has caused a surge in demand for skates, especially during the pandemic. By May 16, 2020, U.S. Google searches for “roller skates” reached an all-time high. 

“I ordered Moxi Skates and it took six months to get them because roller skating blew up so much,” August said. 

Global brands like Moxi and Impala claim three-to six-month wait times, frustrating customers who are waiting for their wheels to arrive. The Wall Street Journal reported that manufacturing parts from China and Taiwan have taken twice as long to be delivered. The popularity resulted in supply-chain issues, which were exacerbated by coronavirus restrictions, including limited production from U.S. manufacturing facilities

Roller skating dates back to the Victorian era when touch between young men and women was strictly forbidden. Socially approved skating permitted young couples to visit one another without the taboo of physical contact. Ironically, such social distancing is useful today.

In the 1900s, skating in the U.S. became integral to the civil rights movement. Some of the first protests against racial discrimination were skate-ins, where African-American skaters protested the segregation of roller rinks. As highlighted in the 2020 Emmy Award-nominated documentary “United Skates”, roller skating established “families” in Black communities, even after desegregation. 

Still, roller rinks continued racial discrimination by terming Black skating events  “adult nights” or soul nights. By redefining these nights to celebrate Black culture, regional and personal skating styles emerged. From Detroit’s “Open-House” Slide to Bill Butler’s “Jammin’”style skating developed in tandem with new waves of electronic dance music

Fun for the whole family

Gearing up to teach new and experienced skaters of all ages, Watson emphasized the physical and mental health benefits of skating. 

“Physically, it helps your lung capacity,” he said. “[Mentally,] a skate rink for three or four hours maybe takes you away from any issues—especially with good music and good people.”

Both The American Health Association and the President’s Council for Physical Fitness confirm Watson’s words. Roller skating causes 50% less stress on joints than running, is five times less dangerous than biking, and provides a “complete aerobic workout.” It’s also a great way to get children moving.

On top of the physical and mental benefits, roller skating is a sport for all ages. 

“I’ve seen six, seven-year-olds catch on real good,” said Watson, “and up to 80 and 90-year-olds still skating — whether it be just a regular shuffle skate type of thing or dance skate.” 

After seeing their mom’s newfound love for skating, August’s daughters, ages three and seven, asked for skates of their own. By moving carpets, clearing furniture and opening doors in her house, August created a small roller rink where she could teach her two daughters to skate on the hardwood floors.

Parents have been particularly affected by the pandemic as they balance work, children and self-care. “We’re all stressed and scared,” August said, noting that it’s been hard to find time for herself. 

According to recent PEW Research Center results, working moms are 11% more likely than working dads to say balancing life and work responsibilities became more difficult during the pandemic. With working women spending 50% more time on child care than their husbands, a new study by A Great Place to Work and the Maven Clinic says women are 28% more likely than their husbands to become burnt-out. 

Pilar Timpane and her toddler after gliding through an afternoon at Durham Central Park. Photo courtesy of Pilar Timpane.

Pilar Timpane, a filmmaker and mother of two, describes it as two choices at odds with each other.

“You end up feeling like you should either be doing something for your kids or doing something for your work,” she said.

Wanting to find a hobby that she could easily learn while spending time alone, Timpane took up roller skating after feeling empowered by women she saw skating on Instagram. She quickly fell in love with the pair of skates she was gifted for Christmas.

“I think of roller skating as a good time; it’s just joyful,” she said.

Reminiscing on their preteen skating days, both Timpane and August quickly caught back on. They especially love skating because it can be a solo adventure or a family affair. 

“We’re a family on wheels,” Timpane said, noting how she roller skates while her husband bikes, her three-year-old daughter scooters and her one-year-old naps in her stroller. When Timpane skates alone, she revels in the little moments to enjoy the physical activity. 

Similarly, August’s family is her “little skate crew.” But August also makes time for herself. Putting on her headset and zoning-out, she “grooves,” she says,”skate-dancing” on Durham’s iconic American Tobacco Trail.

The roller skating revival is one silver lining of the pandemic. August sees it as a way to connect with her kids, too.

“Hopefully they’ll remember and look back on it fondly. Like ‘yeah, that year sucked, but at least we learned how to roller skate.’” 

9th Street Journal reporter Eleanor Ross can be reached at eleanor.ross@duke.edu

Top: Before the pandemic, the Raleigh-Durham Skaters Association threw skating parties throughout the state. Photo courtesy of Eddie Watson.